Hopping mad: Hiking and sailing is the perfect way to explore Greece's Dodecanese islands

The inhabitants of Greece's Dodecanese islands are a welcoming bunch. But there is one group of visitors that they seem unable to figure out: hikers.

"I can rent you a moped if you like," offered Antonis Antonogiou, the owner of Villa Themelina, the hotel I was staying at on Kalymnos, the fourth-largest of the island chain.

I'd mentioned the possibility of taking a morning walk from the island's capital, Pothia, over to Vathi, which lies in the next bay. A dead-ringer for Captain Birdseye, albeit with a 60-a-day cigarette habit, Antonis did his best to put me off my journey, warning that it would take much longer than a morning to walk over there.

The Dodecanese form a line of rocky outcrops strewn much closer to the Turkish coastline than that of mainland Greece. As a frontier, the archipelago has had to adapt to the whims of every occupying force from the Crusaders to the Italians. Hikers, it seemed, were another matter entirely; Antonis just didn't see the point. But the goal of my trip was to island-hop on foot, following a new self-guided hiking itinerary around three of the more offbeat Dodecanese islands: Kalymnos, Patmos and Leros.

I wasn't going to set aside my walking boots before I'd got at least a bit of Dodecanese dirt on them. So, waving goodbye to Antonis, I picked up the route notes the tour operator had provided, and set off along a lane that wound out of town to join an old kalderimi, or mule track, up the adjacent hillside.

Within half an hour I'd caught up with two other Vathi-bound hikers. Theo, a local, told me he hadn't walked this path since the 1960s but he had been persuaded to take a trip up memory lane by Mark, a visiting Australian relative. "When I was young we would walk this path barefoot from Vathi to Pothia just to go to the cinema. Then we'd walk back again, in the dark, under starlight," he said, wistfully, as the three of us climbed.

Eventually we reached a plateau between the two bays and the sun came up, sharpening the scenery. Bleached rock turned from grey to gold, brown scrub became slicked with purple, green and yellow and wafts of sun-warmed thyme, sage and oregano drifted intermittently across the path.

On the outskirts of Vathi I left Theo reminiscing to Mark about his days picking mandarins in the surrounding orchards and detoured off the route to visit a ruined 6th-century basilica. The remains of a baptistry could still be made out here – just. Among the giant cornflower-blue thistles, spiders' webs and a row of beehives was a splintered jigsaw of mosaic floors and marble columns, the scenery soaked in a sweet-sour whiff of hay and dust.

A little further on was Vathi's gorge-like harbour – and Antonis, who had ostensibly gone there to fish, though I suspect he just wanted to check I'd made it.

Over a late breakfast of feta, watermelon and gritty Greek coffee in one of the harbourside cafés, Antonis told me that tourism on Kalymnos was only just beginning. "It's not ideal here," he explained. "There's no international airport, the roads weren't good until recently and the beaches tend to be small." What Kalymnos does have is barren but beautiful cliffs which, over the last decade or so, have made the island a popular destination for climbers. And as these climbers have spread the word, a small local market in independent tourism has gradually developed here, which is good news for an island economy that until very recently depended almost wholly on sponge diving.

Another of the Kalmynos hikes passes Ayios Savvas monastery, high above Pothia, and the island's Folklore Museum, where an exhibit tells of countless deaths and paralyses suffered by Kalmynos' sponge divers, largely due to the bends.

Bridging the two industries, Antonis's hotel is set in an old sponge merchant's house. With its period cornicing, wooden floors and tiled fireplace, it seems oddly like a Victorian townhouse washed up on an Aegean shore. Next door, another 19th-century townhouse is home to the Vouvalis Museum. The Miss Havisham-like former home of sponge merchant Nikolaos Vouvalis, it remains filled with the (now moth-eaten) trappings of the industry's one-time wealth. Also adjacent is a shiny new archaeological museum, where some notable treasures of the island are on display.

A small tourism-based scuba operation has now started up on the island, but when I asked Antonis if the diving was good here, he frowned: "I'm told so but I've never been down. My father was a sponge diver but he had an accident that left him unable to walk, so my family decided that was enough. The Antonogiou sponge-diving tradition stopped with me. They sent me to university to study rather than let me dive."

"The biggest influence here is still the sea, though," interrupted his friend Ianni. "If you listen to the local music, you hear the sway of it. The sea is life here and that is reflected in the music. In Kalymnos there's a famous sponge divers' dance. The first part looks like they've got the bends. The dancers fall, defeated by the sea. Then they get up and start dancing wildly. It shows the spirit of the people. They know what they're facing but they're not afraid."

Next on my itinerary was the island of Patmos, a popular pilgrimage destination thanks to its 11th-century Monastery of St John and the Cave of the Apocalypse, where St John received his Revelation.

Pilgrims weren't in evidence on the 90-minute Flying Dolphin catamaran crossing from Kalymnos, though. The main town in Patmos, Skala, has been optimistically described as a competitor to Mykonos Town on the nightlife front, and the boat was packed with neon-bedecked Greeks and beer-swilling French tourists.

As I organised onward ferry tickets at a travel agency in Skala, I let slip that I was planning to walk up to the monastery later that afternoon. "You like rock climbing? Ha, ha, ha," laughed the agency's manager, trying to dissuade me, though the walk there, following a substantial path, took all of 20 minutes.

With a coach-friendly asphalt road offering an alternative route up, the main sights of Patmos are well subscribed. However, if like me you arrive at the Cave of the Apocalypse just as an elderly Greek tourist is getting a loud telling-off for standing on a sacred chair and dipping her hanky in a holy oil lamp, it's hard to get a sense of spirituality. Locals recommend visiting in September, for the island's free annual 10-day festival of religious music, with atmospheric concerts held on an open-air stage just outside the cave.

I pressed on uphill to the whitewashed steps and blue-shuttered houses of the village of Chora, whose narrow, Unesco-protected alleyways led me to a fortress-like monastery. Here, I admired its thick stone walls, incense-blackened frescoes and glittering Treasury.

Then I made my way to the other side of the island, climbing up to its highest point, Profitis Ilias, and down to a deserted pebble beach, through a Shangri-La-like valley where an adjacent nunnery cultivates neat vines, orchards, vegetables and flowers. This is the part of Patmos to visit if you are in search of solitude. For over two hours I didn't meet another person, the only signs of life a cluster of strange, spinning-top butterflies and a steady clattering sound as each roll of waves dragged more pebbles into the sea.

After another couple of days criss-crossing the island on scrubby, thistle-strewn footpaths and coming back to cool off in the neat pool of the Greek-Swedish-owned Patmos Garden Hotel, it was time to hop on the Flying Dolphin again, for the hour-long crossing to Leros.

Once home to a notorious psychiatric hospital and prison for political dissidents, the island doesn't have the romantic reputation of some of its neighbours. Yet its dark history seems distant when you are exploring it on foot. Highlights included a Sunday morning climb, accompanied by church bells, up to the island's main castle and a row of ridge-top windmills, the art-deco architecture of Lakki, a detour to a war museum tucked away in a cool tunnel (the Second World War Battle of Leros inspired The Guns of Navarone) and a lighthouse surrounded by goats and pine trees.

My base was the Hotel Archontiko Angelou, an old mansion originally built by Cairo-based cotton merchants that had been sympathetically renovated by its glamorous young owner, Marianna, and filled with antiques, flea-market finds and jugs of fresh jasmine and bougainvillea.

Marianna offered to show me around Leros, so each day (after I'd been on an early morning hike and filled up on a delicious homemade breakfast) we took in a different side of the island. Hiking wasn't high on Marianna's agenda, so we hung out at her favourite beach, Theoliskaria, ate squid, whitebait and salad on a waterside terrace at Aghia Marina and snoozed our way to remote white pebble beaches and tiny island villages aboard the Barbarossa, which offered low-key cruises from the harbour .

"Isn't this a better way to sightsee than tramping around?" Marianna said, as we drifted along on the Barbarossa's shady top deck. Maybe it was the heat, the post-hike drowsiness, or the shot of ouzo the skipper handed out mid-cruise, but I was starting to agree.

Getting there

The writer travelled with Inntravel (01653 617906; inntravel.co.uk), which offers a "Discovering the Dodecanese" trip from £498 per person, including seven nights' b&b, six picnics, walking maps and route notes, and port/airport to hotel transfers; flights and ferry tickets are not included but the company can arrange flights. Inntravel suggests flying to Kalymnos via Athens, returning from Leros via Athens, with Olympic Airlines (0871 200 0500; olympicairlines. com) from Gatwick or Manchester. However, the flights involve spending a night in Athens, so a more direct route is a charter flight to the neighbouring island of Kos; Thomson Airways (0871 231 4691; flights.thomson.co.uk) flies from Gatwick and Manchester, with some flights from regional airports.

Getting around

Ferry tickets can be booked in advance through Danae Travel in Athens (00 30 210 324 7511; danae.gr). Kos to Kalymnos, for example, takes around 40 minutes and costs around €14.50 each way.

Staying there

Villa Themelina, Enoria Evagelistrias, Kalymnos (00 30 224 302 2682; villa-melina.com).

Hotel Archontiko Angelou, Alinda, Leros (00 30 224 702 2749; hotel-angelou-leros.com).

Visiting there

Patmos Music Festival runs from 27 August to 4 September 2009. Information on this year's concerts can be found locally or, nearer the time, at patmos.com.

Eight-hour day trips on Barbarossa (00 30 6978 048 715) leave from Agia Marina on Leros at 11am daily (in season) and cost €25 per person, including a glass of ouzo.

More information

Greek National Tourism Organisation: 020-7495 9300; gnto.co.uk

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